In the world of sports, relying on fate is rarely the best idea. The undefeated will fall at some point, a ground ball skips off in the wrong direction, or a shot that seems destined for the bottom of the net gets swatted away by an athlete inexplicably occupying the space between here and destiny.
But sometimes, when you’re putting together a graphic of an NFL franchise’s win-loss record, you notice that cascading streaks of failure and success start to look a lot like a bird of prey. For “Dorktown” writers Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein, it was a sign that their latest team-centric documentary miniseries on the Atlanta Falcons was headed in the right — perhaps even fated — direction.
“Since there’s fewer than 1,000 games in the sample, you can actually do one big progressive chart,” Bois told IndieWire. “So I generated it, and I was like, ‘That looks like a falcon to me.’ So, I showed Alex and I superimposed the Falcons logo above it. And we were both like, ‘Holy shit.'”
It’s the kind of breakthrough you need when piecing together a mammoth project like the seven-part YouTube series “The History of the Atlanta Falcons” in roughly the same time it takes to gestate a human child. In the wake of 2020’s “The History of the Seattle Mariners,” a flagship part of the launch of the SB Nation creative community Secret Base — and an eventual smash hit amongst Letterboxd users — a mid-December Slack message from Bois to Rubenstein got the pigskin rolling.
That the team behind the series — which also includes rights specialist Lindley Sico and additional writing and narration from Joe Ali — could quickly turn around a seven-part, half-century-spanning overview of not just a team but the city where they play is a testament to their unconventional process.
As many of the most visible docuseries across TV are slowly adhering to the same general house style, there’s not much on the internet that looks like “Dorktown.” The histories of the Seattle Mariners and Atlanta Falcons (not to mention those series’ spiritual predecessors “Pretty Good” and “Chart Party” that tackled flashpoint moments in NFL labor history and coined a term that’s latched on across a number of different pro leagues) are rendered as minimalist art.
The complexity of some components has expanded in more recent projects, but they all play out in this void of 2-D space, as if stumbled on in some experimental alien archive. Finding out how all this animation is brought to life is like hearing from Rembrandt’s ghost that the only tools he used were broken wagon wheel spokes and a handful of mismatched porcupine bristles.
“Google Earth and QuickTime are kind of our bread and butter there. It’s not the way that you’re supposed to use Google Earth. But it’s what we do,” Bois said. “We generally finish all the building and all the scripts before we actually shoot any video files. Once we do — and this is also very funny — I use iMovie. I don’t use Premiere or anything like that. It’s a super unorthodox way of doing it. But it works.”
The “Dorktown” team are all about the “super unorthodox way of doing” things. Their overall approach respects doc convention, but spices it up with internet age ingenuity.
Watch how the Secret Base team builds their unconventional sports docuseries in the video below.
“The framework says, ‘You need access to all these people. You need to do talking head interviews.’ That’s one way to do it. And actually, it’s a really good way to do it. I love traditional documentaries told in that style. They’re great. But it’s not the only way to do it,” Bois said. “Maybe the thing that I’m proudest of when it comes to us and Secret Base is that we’ve found a way to tell a story where we are not beholden to our subject. Maybe it’s not as high gloss. Maybe we don’t have some access that in some cases would be really cool. But in other ways, we actually play it to our advantage.”
“The easiest thing to do is say, ‘Here are 20 clips of Shaq destroying backboards, just breaking rims and shattering glass and doing superhuman things.’ The challenge is figuring out, ‘What do I have to add to that?’ in terms of storytelling, or commentary, or context, that somebody can’t just go get somewhere else on the internet. That helps keep us very sharp,” Secret Base managing editor Ryan Nanni said.
That freedom from conventional participation means that Secret Base videos can go in a number of different directions. Kofie Yeboah has been shepherding viewers into the “Fumble Dimension,” a “Twilight Zone”-inspired tour through the bizarre corners of sports video games. Alongside Bois as co-host, “Fumble Dimension” pushes the idea of a sports doc into something both theoretical and participatory. Past installments have featured viewers calling plays and constructing the ultimate golf course from hell. It’s absurd, it’s impressionistic, and it gives just as much insight into the people watching sports as those who play them.
“I don’t view ‘Fumble Dimension’ as videos. I view them as science experiments,” Yeboah said. “Growing up with two engineers, I was fascinated with the scientific method. So each video starts out with a hypothesis, and then we have our control, independent variable, and if there’s something that goes wrong, we document that in the video. We make sure to be like, ‘Hey, this video may have not turned out how we expected. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to publish this.'”
Making something beautiful out a tangled web of information is also true on the research side, where Rubenstein has slowly developed a data wrangling system that works for its singular target.
“We both keep our own spreadsheets and folders and stuff in Google Docs,” Bois said. “I have looked at Alex’s spreadsheets, because that’s what I use to pull data and make charts. To me, they’re beautiful, but to the average person, they probably look like a nightmare. It’s like 38 tabs, each one has five different tables and interactive charts on it.”
“It could only possibly make sense to me and Jon,” Rubenstein said. “Since we started in 2018 to where we are now, it’s just been a living, evolving organism of how we develop our stuff.”
Regardless of what these machinations eventually lead to, it’s just part of what makes these videos compelling. And, as opposed to a majority of other widely viewed sports docs in circulation, Secret Base doesn’t have any official rights partnerships. Any featured clips in “Beef History” or “Rewinder” or any other of the site’s main series are fair-use inclusions.
Without being able to lean on footage, another indispensable piece of these puzzles is a distinct personality. The writing in these videos is a cocktail of dry wit, genuine enthusiasm, and pitch-perfect timing. It’s a specific sense of humor that somehow allows room to acknowledge that the sports stories on display are both part of a silly game and so much more than that, all at once.
“Pre-pandemic, when most of our group was working in the same physical location, even before we reimagined our video offering and launched Secret Base, these were the kinds of things that we would just get lost in talking to each other. ‘I found this really weird thing on Wikipedia that I’m going to tell you about: The Tour de France used to have this rule that everything you started with, you had to bring with you. So if you if you blew a tire, you had to carry the tire around your neck and couldn’t leave it behind.’ That same level of curiosity and interest is what allows us to say, ‘Let me dig at this. Let me see what’s here,'” Nanni said.
It’s a combination of all that stylistic DNA that makes these videos all the more welcoming than standard sports programming. There’s an appreciation of the way that sports can play out like a long-running farce or a Greek tragedy, something that keeps these stories open to pretty much anyone.
“Sometimes we do have to get in the weeds and it does rely on kind of a deeper understanding of sports, but as often as we possibly can, we try to walk everybody through everything. Whether it’s diagramming why a particular play or formation makes sense or just telling from the top who someone like Ken Griffey Jr. or Michael Vick is,” Bois said. “We definitely do approach every project with the viewer in mind who is a novice coming in. Sports fans, they’re traditionally a specific type of person and hopefully our stuff serves as an invite to whoever else didn’t get that invite throughout their lives, because it is this amazing Petri dish for storytelling.” —Steve Greene